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Monday, January 2, 2012

Raphaelle Peale

Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, (minus the drape), 1809-14, John Vanderlyn
Americans have always been a tad bit prudish. We still are, though not to the degree we were a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago. For several years in the early part of the nineteenth century, the Hudson River School painter, Asher B. Durand owned John Vanderlyn's painting of Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos. It's a lusciously beautiful, amply endowed vision of female loveliness, languorously arrayed across a red blanket and white sheet asleep in the forest. She's also very nude. The painting was done around 1814 and for years, Durand hung it in his drawing room. Not wanting to offend anyone, especially the delicate sensibilities of the ladies in his household, he kept it covered with a drape. His male friends, even then, considered this something of an amusing compromise. One in particular, Raphaelle Peale, chose to satirize this prudery in a painting of his own. It's called Venus Rising from the Sea--A Deception (After the Bath).

Venus Rising from the Sea--a Deception
(After the Bath), 1822, Raphaelle Peale
I guess such a painting took a fair amount of explaining, judging from the length of the title. If you go looking for it expecting to see a naked lady, Venus or otherwise, emerging from her bath, you're going to be in for a surprising disappointment. You'll see a tantalizing bit of bare ankle and a nude arm. The rest of the painting is a fool-the-eye still-life of the drape.  But don't go away disappointed, it's a very beautiful drape. In fact it's exquisite, perhaps more beautiful in its own way than the presumably voluptuous tease it supposedly conceals. It appears to be a folded bed sheet gracefully hung with pins from a rope draped across the upper part of the canvas. It is painted in warm, rich, tonally vibrant, but neutral colors so natural and pleasant one hopes it is real so as to be able to peek behind it to see the naked lady. And if you're wondering how a bed sheet could possible be the subject for an interesting still-life, the irony of it is that, though we've all seen quite a few naked ladies before (painted and otherwise), it's rare in that very seldom do we see such a gorgeous painting of a bed sheet.

Bowl of Peaches, 1816, Raphaelle Peale
Raphaelle Peale was born in 1774, the eldest son of the preeminent colonial portrait painter, Charles Willson Peale. One wonders if the father might have been a little disappointed that his eldest son didn't follow in his huge footsteps in becoming a portrait painter too, though goodness knows he had enough other painting sons and daughters who did just that. Instead, like his uncle, James Peale, Raphaelle gravitated toward the solitary art of the still-life. And while his uncle painted deliciously sensuous pears, grapes, overripe apples, and the like, Raphaelle's fruit bowls were noticeably simpler with his tastes gravitating toward peaches...that's it...just peaches (and perhaps an occasional bit of watermelon or lemon). His Bowl of Peaches from 1816 is less fussy than his uncle's but like the bed sheet (from 1822), the colors are so warm and soft, the light and composition so natural they appear far more real and tempting.  Like the rest of his siblings, Raphaelle was taught by his father to paint. Though some consider him the best of the clan, actually, he never went very far with his art. His much-loved still-lifes can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. (In truth, he did paint a few portraits as well.) All his life he suffered with gout, and later from alcoholism. He died in 1825 at the age of 51.

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